Keeping the Astana partnership intact

Russia continued efforts to sustain the increasingly fragile Astana partnership from the divergent perspectives of Turkey, Iran and Syria, further complicated by American actions and Israeli interests. 

The last major rebel hold-out of the Idlib governorate in Syria remained a thorn in the flesh of the Syrian government (and the Russians), with the al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) continuing to launch missile attacks on surrounding Syrian areas, including the Russian air base at Khmeimim. The Russia-Turkey agreement on dealing with this threat (see Review, 4/19) was clearly not yielding the desired results. While exhorting Turkey to take more effective action (President Putin and FM Lavrov were in regular telephonic contact with their Turkish counterparts), the Russians also provided air cover for punitive strikes by the Syrian ground forces on the sources of the missile attacks. The offensive, however, stopped short of an all-out attack, both to protect Russia-Turkey relations from intolerable strain and to avoid excessive civilian casualties.  

The Russians urged restraint on Turkish forces operating in Kurdish areas across the Syrian border. At the same time, Russia was conscious of American efforts to create a “safe zone” on the Syria-Turkey border – Secretary Pompeo told a media representative that the idea was to “reduce the risk of terrorists attacking from Syria into Turkey and reduce risks that Turkey will come south and disrupt Kurdish activity inside of Syria”. The Russian MFA accused the US, in partnership with France, of trying to settle Kurds in Arab areas east of the Euphrates, thereby moving towards carving out a Kurdish homeland separate from Syria. Media reports suggested that in view of these developments, Russia may encourage Turkey to wrest the north western town of Tel Rifaat from Kurdish fighters, so that they could put pressure on the US-backed, largely Kurdish, forces of the SDF. This might help extract Turkish acquiescence to the Russian-Syrian operations in Idlib.

Meanwhile, the Russian MFA noted satisfactory progress on the political track of the Syria settlement, with the office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria in direct touch with the Syrian government to finalize one portion of the list of names for the Syrian Constitutional Committee. The fact that the UN envoy is now dealing with the Syrian government indicates the sea change in the ground situation from even a year ago (see Review, 4/19). 

Russia and Iran were in regular touch on the Syrian political settlement and on dealing with the US sanctions on Iran. Russia was active in consultations with the European signatories of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). As indicated earlier, Russia hinted at some sort of a mediatory role in this. 

A totally new development was the announcement by the White House on May 29 that the National Security Advisors of the US, Russia and Israel would meet in Jerusalem in June “to discuss regional security issues”; this meeting could have a significant impact on regional dynamics.

Russia continued efforts to sustain the increasingly fragile Astana partnership from the divergent perspectives of Turkey, Iran and Syria, further complicated by American actions and Israeli interests. 

The last major rebel hold-out of the Idlib governorate in Syria remained a thorn in the flesh of the Syrian government (and the Russians), with the al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) continuing to launch missile attacks on surrounding Syrian areas, including the Russian air base at Khmeimim. The Russia-Turkey agreement on dealing with this threat (see Review, 4/19) was clearly not yielding the desired results. While exhorting Turkey to take more effective action (President Putin and FM Lavrov were in regular telephonic contact with their Turkish counterparts), the Russians also provided air cover for punitive strikes by the Syrian ground forces on the sources of the missile attacks. The offensive, however, stopped short of an all-out attack, both to protect Russia-Turkey relations from intolerable strain and to avoid excessive civilian casualties.  

The Russians urged restraint on Turkish forces operating in Kurdish areas across the Syrian border. At the same time, Russia was conscious of American efforts to create a “safe zone” on the Syria-Turkey border – Secretary Pompeo told a media representative that the idea was to “reduce the risk of terrorists attacking from Syria into Turkey and reduce risks that Turkey will come south and disrupt Kurdish activity inside of Syria”. The Russian MFA accused the US, in partnership with France, of trying to settle Kurds in Arab areas east of the Euphrates, thereby moving towards carving out a Kurdish homeland separate from Syria. Media reports suggested that in view of these developments, Russia may encourage Turkey to wrest the north western town of Tel Rifaat from Kurdish fighters, so that they could put pressure on the US-backed, largely Kurdish, forces of the SDF. This might help extract Turkish acquiescence to the Russian-Syrian operations in Idlib.

Meanwhile, the Russian MFA noted satisfactory progress on the political track of the Syria settlement, with the office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria in direct touch with the Syrian government to finalize one portion of the list of names for the Syrian Constitutional Committee. The fact that the UN envoy is now dealing with the Syrian government indicates the sea change in the ground situation from even a year ago (see Review, 4/19). 

Russia and Iran were in regular touch on the Syrian political settlement and on dealing with the US sanctions on Iran. Russia was active in consultations with the European signatories of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). As indicated earlier, Russia hinted at some sort of a mediatory role in this. 

A totally new development was the announcement by the White House on May 29 that the National Security Advisors of the US, Russia and Israel would meet in Jerusalem in June “to discuss regional security issues”; this meeting could have a significant impact on regional dynamics.
Russia continued efforts to sustain the increasingly fragile Astana partnership from the divergent perspectives of Turkey, Iran and Syria, further complicated by American actions and Israeli interests. 

The last major rebel hold-out of the Idlib governorate in Syria remained a thorn in the flesh of the Syrian government (and the Russians), with the al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) continuing to launch missile attacks on surrounding Syrian areas, including the Russian air base at Khmeimim. The Russia-Turkey agreement on dealing with this threat (see Review, 4/19) was clearly not yielding the desired results. While exhorting Turkey to take more effective action (President Putin and FM Lavrov were in regular telephonic contact with their Turkish counterparts), the Russians also provided air cover for punitive strikes by the Syrian ground forces on the sources of the missile attacks. The offensive, however, stopped short of an all-out attack, both to protect Russia-Turkey relations from intolerable strain and to avoid excessive civilian casualties.  

The Russians urged restraint on Turkish forces operating in Kurdish areas across the Syrian border. At the same time, Russia was conscious of American efforts to create a “safe zone” on the Syria-Turkey border – Secretary Pompeo told a media representative that the idea was to “reduce the risk of terrorists attacking from Syria into Turkey and reduce risks that Turkey will come south and disrupt Kurdish activity inside of Syria”. The Russian MFA accused the US, in partnership with France, of trying to settle Kurds in Arab areas east of the Euphrates, thereby moving towards carving out a Kurdish homeland separate from Syria. Media reports suggested that in view of these developments, Russia may encourage Turkey to wrest the north western town of Tel Rifaat from Kurdish fighters, so that they could put pressure on the US-backed, largely Kurdish, forces of the SDF. This might help extract Turkish acquiescence to the Russian-Syrian operations in Idlib.

Meanwhile, the Russian MFA noted satisfactory progress on the political track of the Syria settlement, with the office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria in direct touch with the Syrian government to finalize one portion of the list of names for the Syrian Constitutional Committee. The fact that the UN envoy is now dealing with the Syrian government indicates the sea change in the ground situation from even a year ago (see Review, 4/19). 

Russia and Iran were in regular touch on the Syrian political settlement and on dealing with the US sanctions on Iran. Russia was active in consultations with the European signatories of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). As indicated earlier, Russia hinted at some sort of a mediatory role in this. 

A totally new development was the announcement by the White House on May 29 that the National Security Advisors of the US, Russia and Israel would meet in Jerusalem in June “to discuss regional security issues”; this meeting could have a significant impact on regional dynamics.

May 30, 2019

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About the Author

Ambassador PS Raghavan

Chairman, National Security Advisory Board & Former Indian Ambassador to Russia

Born in 1955, Ambassador Raghavan holds a B.Sc. (Honours) degree in Physics and a B.E. in Electronics & Communications Engineering. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1979. From 1979 to 2000, he had diplomatic assignments in USSR, Poland, United Kingdom, Vietnam and South Africa, interspersed with assignments in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi. From 2000 to 2004, he was Joint Secretary in the Indian Prime Minister's Office dealing with Foreign Affairs, Nuclear Energy, Space, Defence and National Security. Thereafter, he was Ambassador of India to Czech Republic (2004 - 2007) and to Ireland (2007 - 2011).

He was Chief Coordinator of the BRICS Summit in New Delhi (March 2012) and Special Envoy of the Government of India to Sudan and South Sudan (2012-13). Ambassador Raghavan conceptualized and piloted the creation of the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) in MEA, which implements and monitors India’s economic partnership programs in developing countries, with an annual budget of $1-1.5 billion. He headed DPA in 2012-13. From March 2013 to January 2014, he oversaw the functioning of the Administration, Security, Information Technology and other related Divisions of MEA. Since October 2013, he was also Secretary [Economic Relations] in MEA, steering India’s bilateral and multilateral external economic engagement. Ambassador Raghavan retired from the Indian Foreign Service in January 2016, after serving from 2014 as Ambassador of India to Russia. Since September 2016, he is Convenor of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India.

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